"There will be no peace before Israel is safe within its borders," a captured female terrorist deadpans about halfway through this film -- you almost expect her to pop gum, she says it so casually. A straight-faced spoof of espionage films in particular and serious intentions in general, Fay Grim is also a sequel to 1997's Henry Fool, from writer/director Hal Hartley. Fool followed the adventures of a Queens trio: aspiring writer Simon Grim (James Urbaniak), his half-asleep Martian sister, Fay (Parker Posey), and a drifter named Henry Fool (Thomas Jay Ryan), who walks into the Grims' lives claiming to have authored a multi-volume literary masterpiece called 'Confessions.' When Simon's writing ambitions start to net results in the real world, Henry's dream of being discovered as a some kind of working-class Chaucer falters. He eventually drifts on the next town, another adventure, but leaves Fay with a son. That's where we meet her now, years later, being dragged to a principal's office because the son has been caught with a pornographic viewfinder. "You're grounded, like, forever," she tells him.
The viewfinder, it turns out, was actually sent to the boy by the long-disappeared and presumed-dead Henry, and is itself a ludicrous piece of spycraft and the keystone of a worldwide conspiracy that involves the CIA, the Turkish government, Cuba, Islamic terrorists, the French government and Israel-Palestine. I think Denmark and Sweden were also implicated somehow, but it becomes hard to keep up. The feds, represented hilariously by Jeff Goldblum (he tells one fellow agent, "Carl, go take a walk in the rain") spin a tall tale for the impressionable Fay about how Henry's 'Confessions' were actually a deeply coded text that, if found and read properly, can unlock untold political secrets, but the truth is that they want to draw out Henry himself, believing him to be closely linked to an Osama bin Laden-type figure.In no time at all, Fay is whisked off to Paris on a mission to find Henry. To get herself in spy-mode, she takes to wearing a long coat and lingerie underneath and even assumes a catchy spy alias -- Emily Hopper.
Throughout the film, shady characters and dubious contacts pop out of the woodwork, some so they can deliver one piece of information and then get bumped off. One of the contacts says to Fay, about another contact, "she's an agent of the Israeli secret service." Fay's response: "Is that, like, a bad thing?" Apart from having an inexplicable willingness to get involved in all this, Fay also has a savant-like knack for it. There's a hilarious moment when a collection of random clues and signals that have been left for her all click in her brain and lead to exactly the right conclusion -- Hartley actually writes a '1 + 1 =' style equation on the screen as Posey's face lights up. It's a little moment of joy for a character that I can only assume is meant to be seen as a clinical depressive -- only capable of fleeting moments of happiness, a break in the clouds when old memories don't subsume her. When one of Henry's outlandish crypto-statements is recounted to her, she sighs and says "Henry said all sorts of stuff."
Comedy is where Fay Grim excels, and Posey unquestionably has the chops, but the longer the film goes on the more the comedy eventually starts to lose ground to a more conventional dramatic arc, which is less successful and, I bet, confusing for the actors. Goldblum isn't affected by this -- his motor-mouth fed character is strictly for laughs, reeling off page after page of dialogue without pause -- but the key characters have a history (a whole other movie) and are supposed to have some emotional resonance. Henry is generally too ludicrous a character to be taken seriously, in my opinion, and Hartley is reluctant to actually be pinned down on whether there's any substance to the notion that his character might possess reservoirs of genius beneath the exterior of a verbose, conspiracy-oriented crackpot. As for Fay, she eventually ends up in a Turkish knick-knack shop where the pornographic viewfinder originated, and some blind cleric starts spinning a yarn about a mysterious figure called Harem Fool and you realize that none of this is being played for laughs anymore.
A churlish note on the production values: We have to expect a low-budget production like this to scrimp on any kind of action, but Hartley has proven himself before and confirms yet again that he's practically uninterested in putting any kind of thought into such things. Tensions eventually lead up to fight scenes in Fay Grim, but at that moment the film cuts to a series of stills, which I'm sure Hartley would call a legitimate artistic choice, but it reeks of cheapness, from my vantage point. Scenes shot on location sometimes show nothing but feet. People who have just been shot grip at their chest and fall over without the slightest semblance of realism, like those cartoons of a character getting shot in the Old West. If you have Parker Posey and Jeff Goldblum in your film, couldn't you, as a last resort, hit them up for a loan if you don't have the money to do anything but shoot the walls? Anyway, these complaints probably won't dissuade Hartley fanatics, who aren't expecting to be visually dazzled.